Thursday 2 July 2009

Rethinking equality doesn't mean ditching it

"A rejection of inequality - both absolute, relative and of opportunity - is absolutely core to who we are. But we will be more successful - not just electorally but in challenging unacceptable inequality - if we adopt and own a different, more nuanced view of fairness and equality" said John Denham.

He was making clear that his argument for the left to rethink its politics of equality and fairness in response to the Fabian Society's research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is somewhat more nuanced than it may have appeared from yesterday's Guardian report.

That is followed up in other newspaper's today, though once again, the reflex to reach for an outdated Blairite-Brownite analysis of every issue obscures much more than it illuminates. Indeed Denham's case for a broad coalition strongly reflects the strategy of 'progressive universalism' which Gordon Brown and Ed Balls pioneered at the Treasury: Something for everyone, but most for the worst-off.

The Fabian Society has spent most of the last five years "bringing equality back in". That has helped to shift the government's position from Tony Blair's agnosticism in 2001 about whether "the gap" mattered, even though his government was committed to ambitious attempts to reduce relative poverty. (And some Conservatives now say they accept relative poverty - inequality - matters too). So I naturally agree when Luke Akehurst insists that a more equal society is Labour's animating mission. Luke's pro-equality advocacy, from one of the proudest champions of New Labour, demonstrates that the idea that whether we stand for equality or not is what divides Labour's left from its right or New Labour from Old is far too simple. (Of course, historians will know that it was Tony Crosland's Fabian Old Right who put equality front and centre - and the Tribuneite left which saw that argument as selling out socialism).

Given that we want a fairer and more equal society, then there are two important challenges in Denham's argument about what that means and how we get there.

Firstly, a purely (or primarily) needs-based conception of equality has minority support. About 22% of the public favour this. And this is a relatively older, more working-class demographic, likely to decline in future. Most of the public believe that fairness and equality depends on rewarding effort and merit. (But it is worth noting too that traditional free market anti-egalitarian arguments are also a minority: with about 20% public support).

Secondly, it is unlikely that a needs-based egalitarian argument can convince people simply by better explanations of the facts or more convincing communication strategy.

It is a question of strategy as to the balance to be struck between working with the grain of public attitudes and where to challenge these. Of course, the point of politics and campaigning is to shift attitudes and opinion. Denham's argument is that conceptions of fairness are pretty robust and deep-rooted: attitudes and opinions do shift, but he suggests that this is often in response to a sense of whether those fairness values are being honoured or breached. .

So Denham says that:

What the research shows is that popular sentiment supports a tough, hard headed, but at the end of the day, compassionate version of fairness. One that does not turn its back on those in great need, but one that also insists that effort should be rewarded, and that society should be fair to those who play by the rules.

This sense of fairness is based on the idea that there is a set of obligations and opportunities that should underpin British society. When people say 'it's not fair' it is usually because they believe that the balance of duties and rewards, of right and responsibilities, has been upset.

But I think it would also be a mistake to see this as primarily tactical advice. Denham is making a principled argument too. He does not believe that the idea of fairness as reciprocity is an alien one which the left should reluctantly accomodate: he believes it is the left's own tradition of fairness. (He has been making this argument about the public fairness code for some time, and can legitimately claim that it is much bolstered by the new research.

So the claim about post-1960s egalitarianism is the warning that left risks neglecting the extent to which reciprocity has been a central part of its egalitarian case.

These are important arguments. And Denham was keen to stress that incorporating them could give Labour greater space for egalitarianism.

Digging further into the nature of that opportunity may be the key to understanding a 'beyond New Labour' egalitarian strategy. The Fabian research does a good deal to explain why New Labour adopted the strategies that it did. But it casts light on the limits of the New Labour strategy too, and some of its negative and unintended consequences.

While it is important to be clear about the core arguments for equality and fairness, we should also be careful of setting traditional egalitarians and Denhamite 'reciprocity social democrats' too sharply against each other in building coalitions for a fairer society.

Firstly, most "traditional egalitarians" are not hostile to the very principle that some inequalities are merited. Most are not for some unattainable vision of absolute equality of outcome (which has almost never been advanced by democratic left thinkers though it is often critiqued by their opponents). Rather, they believe that current income and wealth gaps are much too wide, and would favour a reversion to a gap between the top and bottom of society, or organisations, where wage differentials were much closer to 10-1 or 15-1 than to 150-1 or 705-1.

Incidentally, median public opinion on what pay differentials are merited favours about those differentials too. So the public believes that principles "fair inequality" would be much less inequality than we currently have, though Denham stresses the important point that they are often as interested in how the inequality came about as in how much inequality has resulted.

Secondly, we all trade off different conceptions of need, merit and entitlement. There are some spheres in which needs-based egalitarianism is dominant. We have built a strong consensus for providing healthcare on the basis of need, for example. And the dominant public belief in some merited inequality in income is combined with a needs-based sense of what the basic minimum for all should be. (The Joseph Rowntree Foundation's separate research on minimum income standards, just updated, shows where public attitudes are on basic minimum income standards are in 2009).

Thirdly, the Fabian research suggests that it ought to be possible to build broader coalitions, where traditional egalitarians can make progress by engaging with other conceptions of fairness.

The research identifies four clusters of opinions:

The traditional egalitarians make up around 22% of the population. They favour a needs-based approach, being sympathetic to the poor and sceptical of the rich.

The traditional free marketers make up 20% of the population. They believe that those at the top and bottom have got what they deserve. This was Margaret Thatcher's argument for more inequality as being fairer.

The "Angry Middle" make up 26%. They are hostile to the claims of the bottom and the top, believing that the hard-squeezed middle is suffering from free-riding at both ends.

The post-ideological liberals 32% do not have negative views of those at the top, though may pragmatically support some redistribution. They do not share punitive stereotypes of those at the bottom either.

That pattern of attitudes offers some challenges, but also some good news, for anybody seeking broader support for egalitarian strategies.

Traditional egalitarians might often shy away from engagement with the 'angry middle', whose voice the Daily Mail captures so well. But there is clearly broad support to scrutinise fairness at the top of the income scale. Helping the poor is tougher: but the middle will often agree on anti-poverty measures which reflect reciprocity and with strategies of progressive universalism, where there is broad inclusion with most help going to those in most need.

Meanwhile, there is a good deal of response from the liberal agnostics to evidence about the consequences of inequality, and across society, to broader quality of life concerns, such as the increased pressures of excessive materialism (as Jenni Russell discussed in her column on Sunday).

Another important area is to open a wider debate about the barriers to fair opportunities, why they exist and how to break them down. Again, there is broad support which can be unlocked for measures to address starkly unequal opportunities, but only if a discussion about fair chances is opened up which gets beyond individualised explanations.

Traditional egalitarianism is too narrow a base to build broad social coalitions to significantly reduce inequality. Yet it is just as important to note that the research also suggests that traditional free market anti-egalitarianism would rather too narrow to resist a pro-fairness and greater equality coalition for the common good.

A winning coalition for a fairer and more equal society needs to build alliances: we need cross-class alliances to break down entrenched class disadvantage; challenging various dimensions of disadvantage, such as race, will be most effective where we have a politics of the common good, which speaks to the values and interests of us all and within which the most disadvantaged make the biggest gains.

I think that traditional egalitarians will need to engage with the evidence and interrogate the arguments which John Denham makes.

Rethinking the case for equality may be necessary.

The prize for doing so successfully remains a fairer and more equal society.


Stuart White said...

I think John Denham's emphasis on reciprocity is entirely consistent with traditional socialist egalitarianism. Part of the Tawney critique of capitalism was that some kinds of private property right divorce income from useful social function, and that was really a point about reciprocity. (For more on this, see Ben Jackson's excellent book, Equality and the British Left.)

However, I do have a major worry. This is that notions of reciprocity are applied in a very asymmetric way in our society. People get very cross about perceived failure to contribute by welfare recipients. But there is generally less of a tendency to criticise unearned wealth as a source of 'free-riding'. Attitudes might have changed in some ways on this following the financial crisis, but I suspect that many people feel they have every right to unearned capital gains on their homes or to inheritances. I think the challenge for reciprocity social democrats is to find a way to challenge free-riding across the borad, and not just where it concerns the poor.

Sunder Katwala said...

I agree. Rights for the rich and responsibilities for the poor is not a politics of reciprocity.

Denham also made this point, that there should be more space for insiting on shared norms and challenging unmerited rewards at the top.

donpaskini said...

Hi Sunder,

Good piece. I think one of the things which the reaction to Denham's comments shows is that those of us who want to shift the way that we argue for equality need to be very careful in explaining how and why.

While the 'traditional egalitarians' aren't a majority, there is no way of building a majority without their enthusiastic support, and they mustn't be taken for granted.

For example, I and many others don't believe in "a tough minded fairness code" of the kind that Denham has in the past argued for, either in theory or in the form of the absolutely vile welfare reform legislation we've seen recently.

In some ways the debate about how to advance the equalities agenda is like the debate about the future of Labour in the 1990s. Just as New Labour was wrong to assume that traditional Labour supporters had 'nowhere else to go', so the new egalitarians would be wrong to assume that traditional egalitarians will always support any new ways of building a pro-equality consensus which include libruls and the 'angry middle'.

Robert said...

Under labour my benefits do not rise to cover anything.

here is my first year under Labour.

IB rise 75p a week.

House rent £2.95
Council tax £3.58

Labour removed these two items and are no longer counted for rises in benefits.

Since labour has come to power benefits for the most needy have gone down, I now get £86 a week if the Tories had stayed in I would now be getting £116.

Now you might say to me get a job you piece of scrounging shit, but I'm very lucky you might say I'm so disabled I'm excused from working, even under the new rules my disability is to severe.

I live in poverty under a labour government...

Charlie Marks said...

Robert's brought the debate back down to earth.

Time was, those on low incomes voted Labour because they expected the party would help them in power.

But this is no longer the case. For people who have grown up under new Labour there's no association with the "old" Labour support for full employment through nationalised industries - no association with Labour being on the side of ordinary people.